Modi announces 21-day national lockdown as India battles virus

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A traveller stands outside a nearly empty Delhi Junction Railway Station in Delhi on March 22, 2020. Bloomberg photo by Prashanth Vishwanathan

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has imposed a three-week long nationwide lockdown and allocated an extra $1.97 billion for health care to contain the spread of coronavirus infections which are now spiking in the South Asian nation.

“If we listen to the health experts we know that 21 days are crucial to break the cycle of transmission,” Modi said in his televised address to the nation on Tuesday. “For a few days forget what it means to go out. Today’s decision of a nationwide lockdown draws a line outside your home.”

India is struggling to contain the economic and health fallout of the spreading coronavirus outbreak that has so far infected 519 in India and killed 10 people. Ashish Chauhan, CEO at Bombay Stock Exchange, said the bourse will remain remain open through the lockdown.

India’s rupee weakened offshore during Modi’s address, which was after local markets had shut. The one-month non-deliverable forward was trading at 77.63 a dollar, versus 77.32 before the speech. The SGX Nifty Futures for March delivery slumped more than 3%.

In the last week, the government implemented a near complete lockdown of its major cities and suspended train, flight and long distance bus services.

“It’s a war of survival between us and the virus,” said Suresh Kumar Rathi, associate professor at the Public Health Foundation of India and an epidemiologist. “Three weeks of complete lockdown is critical for India because it has a high density of population and limited resources.”

The biggest challenge for Modi will be to curb the spread of the virus in a country of 1.3 billion and shield an economy that’s set to expand at the slowest pace in more than a decade. But experts say the country could be on the same trajectory as Italy, where the outbreak quickly escalated, causing hospitals to overflow.

In his speech which lasted half-an-hour, Modi said the amount set aside to fight coronavirus will be used for adding testing facilities, purchasing personal protective equipment for health workers and expanding isolation beds, ventilators and other important equipment.

State governments will ensure essential services and supplies including hospitals, medical shops and establishments engaged in manufacturing of medicines, vaccines, sanitizers, masks and medical devices will remain open, according to the statement.

The allocation for health comes at a time when the government’s income is already under pressure with falling tax collections. Global economic uncertainty is expected to derail plans to sell state-owned companies and supply chain disruptions may affect trade.

Oxford Economics has slashed India’s growth forecast for the first quarter of 2020 to 3%, a number not seen even during the worst of the global financial crisis. Meanwhile, the central bank last week announced measures to boost liquidity while holding back from following global peers with a rate cut.

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